Climate Crisis

Protecting our living past from future threats

We are only just beginning to appreciate the impact of climate change on our built heritage. The Bartlett is influencing the first international attempts to deal with the issue.

The Culture Ministers’ Meeting was one of the ministerial meetings organised as part of the G20 Leaders’ Summit 2021, which was hosted by Italy. Prof May Cassar, Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, has expertise in preventive conservation, with a particular focus on the impact of climate change on cultural heritage. She spoke at the event in a panel discussion on Strategies and Actions for Increased Resilience of Cultural Heritage on 12 April 2021. Her presentation was recorded, and a transcript of that presentation follows:

My talk aims to show firstly, how historic buildings have survived by working in harmony with the climate rather than when we attempt to control the environment at any cost and secondly, that the link between low energy use in historic buildings and environmental sustainability is inherently strong and can inform wider climate change policies on mitigation and adaptation. As with all principled stands, this approach today is not straightforward or simple. Market failure in key areas which I will now outline, suggest the need for policy interventions.

My starting position is that cultural heritage endures because it is situated within a community, a society, and does not stand alone. Therefore, while we have a duty to protect cultural heritage from the impact of climate change, cultural heritage managers, policy makers and indeed the public have a duty to ensure that cultural heritage helps, where it can, to alleviate climate change impacts on the planet. We need a balanced relationship among people, patrimony and planet. I will return to the policy interventions we need under each of these Ps.

My second point is that historic buildings learn, and they can teach us, through embedded intangible skills and knowledge. One, how to respond to the climate emergency, two, in the way we construct our future buildings and cities and, three, in the way we can live more in tune with the planet, more environmentally sustainable.

My third and final point is that we urgently need policies that redress the balance between our dependence on fossil fuels to drive our environmental control systems for the protection of cultural heritage and the urgency to protect the planet from harmful emissions of greenhouse gases. This is a double standard that we can no longer sustain. We cannot justify continued dependence on fossil fuels to provide fully controlled environments even if it means that in the short term, some cultural assets might be lost. It is our duty and responsibility to diversify energy sources. Otherwise, we are colluding in the destruction of our planet and of other forms of cultural heritage, for example, in coastal cities that are flooded such as Venice or sites battered by storms such as the Skara Brae Neolithic settlement in Scotland, or in the Golden Mountains of the Altai in the Russian Federation or in Herschel Island in the Yukon, Canada where the permafrost is melting. While heritage-related energy efficiency measures may appear to make a small contribution compared to the size of the global challenges we face, that is, we might ask what positive impact will limiting our use of exacting fossil fuel-driven air conditioning systems might have, compared to the impact of other industries on the potential loss of entire cities, yet we cannot avoid answering the future question: Where were you and what did you do in the time of crisis?

If we go back to my starting position that cultural heritage is living and human and that it lives within society and not outside it, we need policy interventions that address three challenges around people, patrimony and planet:

Firstly - PEOPLE:

To understand and manage energy flows in historic buildings, one needs to understand and engage with the scientific evidence. This means putting heritage scientists at the heart of decision making, just as we have seen health scientists at the heart of policy making in the current pandemic.

Secondly - PATRIMONY:

To understand how historic buildings can perform without relying on extensive engineering systems, one needs to understand the interaction between the climate and the building fabric which acts as a multiple filter for air, light and pollution as well as providing shelter. This means combining building pathology data and construction history data to develop repositories of multi-cultural, cross-disciplinary case studies to demonstrate the historic resilience of different building typologies to the climate and to enable the most useful information to be extracted for future heritage to contribute to the green transition. The market has failed to emerge from its disciplinary siloes to create these repositories and so policy interventions are necessary.

Thirdly - PLANET:

The priority of institutions must now be environmental sustainability. There is no longer any place for, and neither should there be any tolerance of, environmental double standards that contribute to the destruction of the planet in the name of heritage protection. I first highlighted this contradiction almost 30 years ago. I did not expect to be making the same case now, citing market failure. This means exhorting policy makers to act to ensure that the use of fossil fuels for heritage conservation is phased out and replaced by renewable forms of energy, in the name of environmental sustainability.

The G20 countries have available the experts, advanced technologies (from wearable sensors to smart phones and satellites) and a growing number of citizen scientists, but they are seldom connected and are widely dispersed. This is also where policy makers can add value, by intervening where there is market failure as I have just described. We require strategies that lift all barriers that might hinder data and knowledge sharing to promote strongly co-operation among cultural and heritage organisations; research institutions and universities, and NGOs and community-based organisations for the common good.


Prof May Cassar

Director and Professor of Sustainable Heritage, UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage

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